As the proprietor of the hostelry at the edge of the desert, Kanaya Maryam was perfectly content to let herself have favorite patrons after a sweep and a half. Those who paid up front were smiled at; those who paid rather begrudgingly at the end of their stays were given insincere quirks of her lips; and those who refused to pay for even a single drink out of the many that had left them stumbling around her bar were immediately chased out either by the threat of her chainsaw or the beating wings of her lusus.
For that, hers was a place well favored. After a sweep, her lusus gained some respite when regulars began to sort out the more unreasonable riffraff. There was no stopping every single brawl that would break out; there was no way of stopping trolls from fighting in the first place. Kanaya was used to it. At times, the reasons behind the brawls were entertaining enough to allow the fights to begin in the first place.
All her news came in with her patrons. She learned of the uprisings started by upstart lowbloods, and she heard of the subsequent quelling slaughters. The tales of gamblignants on the high seas, embellished by the drunkards who swore they had escaped by the skin of their fangs, made her smile and enjoy the novels traders brought to her all the more. It was a rare day that passed that she would consider boring, given all the traffic between the desert’s edge and the forests to the west.
Of all her patrons, Karkat Vantas could easily be considered the worst. He was typically dragged in, half conscious and wrapped in heavy bandages no matter how small the injuries, by his shrieking lusus. He started fights that nearly turned into full scale riots in the small town the hostelry was part of at the slightest provocation, and he had the largest tab in the history of the establishment. However, it was hardly in Kanaya to turn away her best source of new information. That he had shoved himself into her pale quadrant didn’t exactly hurt, either.
He gave her the rumor as he gave her all news: sloppily drunk over a pitcher of ale. Outside, the night was starting to fade; all sensible trolls had retreated to their dark, dark respiteblocks for the day. He sat slouched at the bar, the two of them the only trolls left awake; their lusii drowsed in the corners. Idly, out of rhythm, he scratched at the bar with one hand and held tight as death to the pitcher’s handle with the other. She swept the tiny curlings of wood away when he closed his hand.
“’Ssss, ‘s a bunch of hoofbeast shit, M’ry’m,” he slurred.
He gave a backhanded slap to the air, wobbling on his stool as he did. “’F fucking course it is! Fuckin’ highbloods just stomping all over us for no grubfucking reason!” He slumped over the bar once more, clenching and unclenching his hand. Around his wrist was a wide swath of bandages. She could not see even a tiny stain on the white. She did not need to see one to know what lay beneath.
“I suppose you’re going to give me one of your famous diatribes about the sorry state of the hemospectrum and all the evils that are perpetuated by adhering to the caste system?”
“I—” He paused and looked at her. Though his eyes were squinted as they always were, she knew the color of his irises perfectly. “Yeah. Yeah. You fuckin’ get it. You...you’re jade, for Gog’s sake. Got a virgin mother grub for your lusus an’ everythin’. But you just don’t give one tiny piece of shit about any of it.” He lifted his head and tilted backward to slosh the ale into his mouth. He grumbled, snorted, and wiped his mouth with his arm when he hunched down again. “A highblood comes in an’ messes with you and you just send him right the fuck back out the door.” He grumbled again and his head tipped lower. “Got a good thinkpan. Bet you’d know what the fuck to do if any of those freak brigandrifts came here.”
She raised a brow. “Brigandrifts? I have brigandrifts come and go almost every day.”
“I said freak brigandrifts.” He jerked upright, letting go of the pitcher to hide his nubby horns with his hands. “Don’t have any horns, don’t have any fangs, and they’re pale like motherfucking rainbow drinkers—which by the way makes the whole no-fangs thing make even less fucking sense, the assholes.” He wobbled dangerously before crashing back down on the bar.
She looked at the front door a moment. “No horns at all?”
“Not even fucking tiny things like mine!” He took a moment to shake his head and lift one finger to point at her face. “An’ they’re gonna fuckin’ grow in more, all right?” He squinted until he could barely see, jabbing his finger toward her horns. “You think you’re better than me with that fucking hook?”
“No, Karkat, I do not consider myself your better because of my horns.” She smiled and patted him on the head. Even if he had not been halfway to falling onto the floor, she would have been able to pull her hand back in time to dodge the flailing punch aimed at it.
“But they fuckin’ do!” he shouted. He waved one arm toward the door. “Running around actin’ like they’ve got better fuckin’ blood than that nook-licking Peixes!”
Kanaya sighed, flicking her eyes up to the ceiling. No noise came down. “You really should stop talking about the empress apparent like that.”
“I don’t fuckin’ care,” he snapped. “Who the hell’s listening to the freak with—with tiny ass horns, anyway?” He frowned and looked at the pitcher. “Just you. And I don’t have to fuckin’ not tell you what I’m thinkin’...right?”
“No,” she said quietly. When she patted his head again, he did not swipe at her. She let out an amused puff of breath. “You’re welcome to say what you want to me.”
“Good.” He took a deep breath and let it out in a heavy, weary sigh. “You’re...you’re a good troll, Maryam. Kanaya.” Gravity decided to make his head weigh more than it had a moment before, and he slouched so far forward his scraggly black hair brushed at the scratched, stained wood. “Those freak brigandrifts are looking for fucking somethin’. I heard that somewhere. An’ someone said they’re supposed to be coming this way.”
“Oh? Is that so?”
“Yeah,” he mumbled. “So I thought...I should come make sure my moirail’s okay.” He put his forehead down. “You come to me the first second you think trouble’s around. Got it?”
“As you command, oh fearless moirail leader.”
After a moment of quiet, his reply came: a stuttering stupor-snore. The noise roused his lusus, which proclaimed its weariness by way of a squawk. Slowly, it rose to its feet and scuttled along. Karkat was gathered up in its claws as gently as possible; he was too drunk to manage even a swing at his custodial assailant. His snores trailed behind him as the lusus took him to their rented room, and she let out an amused sigh when silence had resumed.
Though it was a general truth that no sane, normal troll left the safety of their hive during the daylight, Kanaya enjoyed the solitary quiet it afforded her; the strong wind she could hear was rather pleasant. Very few patrons ever came out during the bright times, and fewer still came in from outside. With Karkat finally unconscious and the room emptied, she slipped free a book from a shelf beneath the counter. A sliver of paper emblazoned with her sign kept her place, and she set it atop the fresh scratch marks as she moved to sit on the stool her moirail had once occupied.
How much time had passed between her opening the book and catching the sound of hooves on the dusty ground outside, she could only count in the pages that she had turned. She closed the book around her finger and looked to the swinging double doors. The glare off the white dust was nearly blinding, but the filthy brown coat that walked in broke through it. What caught her eye next was the remarkably bright violet scarf pulled high on the person’s face, and a stripe of the same color on the stiff brown hat on their head. Coughing, blinking repeatedly, they walked inside and slapped at the white dust that clung to their coat.
Sliding off the stool, smoothing her long green skirt as she went, Kanaya asked, “How can I help you today?”
“Wa—” A fit of loud coughing. “Water. Please.”
She smiled and went behind the bar. As she walked, she took the bookmark in hand and closed the book about it. “Gladly. You may take a seat.” When her offer had been taken, she held out her hand. “But I’ll need your guns.”
Violet eyes looked up at her, so narrow from the dust in them and so darkened by the near-black grime on the face around them that she could barely spot the color.
“If you would. I have strict rules about weaponry here.”
Another cough. “All right, all right.” They sat up straight and reached inside the long coat. A small snap and shuffle of leather against cloth, and the two holsters that had been visible on their hips were handed over.
“Don’t worry,” she murmured, “I’ll return them when you leave.” She examined the guns a moment, the clean white metal protected by the scuffed brown leather. The moment passed, and she crouched to unlock a cabinet with one of the keys on the large ring on her waist, set them inside amidst the myriad other weapons, and locked it again. As she rose, she took hold of a clean glass. The sink was her destination, and she returned with clear, shining water captured in the cup.
“Thank you,” the stranger said through the mess in their throat. The scarf was tugged down enough to bring the glass close to lips colored faint pink. Kanaya raised a brow and remained silent. The water was drained in one go, but the swallow that marked the end was rather quiet. A long, shaking sigh came in time with the clunk of the glass on the bar. They barely reacted when Kanaya took the glass and refilled it, the filthy hand simply curling slightly shut.
“How long have you been out in the desert?” she asked.
“I’ve seen a great deal of trolls come in absolutely coated with sand and dirt, and each and every one of them spent a long while in the desert.” She smiled and put the glass down. “How long?”
“I haven’t exactly been keeping track of how long I’ve been moving,” the stranger muttered. They rubbed at their eyes, smearing the filth even darker. “A while. I finally came to this town and saw that there was an inn. I need somewhere to stay for a few days.” They rummaged inside the coat and brought out a small pouch. “This should cover it all.”
She picked it up and heard the hearty clinking within. A glance inside showed the bright, familiar colors of good coins. “It will indeed.” She crouched once more to set the pouch in a small safe beside the gun cabinet and returned to her feet when the lock was closed. “So, what kind of accommodations would you like?”
“A room with a bath.”
“Ah. Of course.” Kanaya turned and walked away, picking another key from her ring. A tall cabinet set deep in the wall beside the arrangement of bottles was opened. More keys were hung there, organized around clear painted numbers. They were few in number, and she chose one swiftly. “Room four. I cleaned it just yesterday. It has one of the finest baths I have to offer.” She closed the cabinet and returned to set the key beside the stranger’s hand. “You can take the glass with you to drink as much as you need. It’s at the end of the hallway to the left.”
A long sigh. “Thank you.” They rose to their feet, glass in one hand and the other rubbing at the back of their neck through the scarf. Kanaya’s eyes followed them as they went, and she did not blink even when she heard the door open and close. She picked up the book and resumed reading. The chapter she finished some time later, and the book she closed once again. She returned the book to its place on the shelf beneath the counter, and knelt down. In the dark lay her chainsaw, and into the dark she reached her hand.
The bathtub had to be filled and drained twice before the grime was completely scrubbed off from flesh and hair. When cleanliness had been returned to, they sank into the hot water with a long groan. They soaked and sat and kept their eyes closed. How long it had been since a good bath was taken, there was no idea in their mind.
Metal clinked on the porcelain near their head. They did not open their eyes.
“I won’t be presumptuous enough to entertain the idea that you could have known what I’ve heard,” Kanaya said quietly. “Though I must assume that you’re at least aware of the rumors that are floating about.”
“That’s a fair assumption.”
“You are aware of the rumors telling of the brigandrifts wandering around Alternia with skin as pale as a rainbow drinker’s. You are aware that they have no horns, and they do not have fangs.” She lifted the chainsaw slightly, holding it above their head. “And it seems that I have a new fact to add. At least one of them has bright yellow hair.” She paused; she tilted forward. The water was quite clear. “And is a woman.”
“Correct. You may add that to your rumor’s facts.”
“I will have one more fact to add.” She took hold of the chainsaw’s starter. “You are very obviously not a troll. I will have you tell me what you are.”
“And I will not have you threaten me with a chainsaw for the sake of those facts.”
Before she could dodge away, the woman reached back and over her head to tap a knitting needle against the chainsaw. With a crackle and a small flash, the chainsaw vanished. She held a tube of lipstick in her hand. She stared; her eyes grew wide. At the breaking of water, she jerked her head up and stepped back. The woman, unabashedly naked, strode to the chair that held her clothes. Drying with the towel that was draped on the chair’s high back, she began to dress.
“I have no desire to kill a troll that’s only threatened me out of a desire to protect what’s hers,” she said. “I find that rather noble, even if the chainsaw is a tad...brutish.” She pulled on her scuffed blue jeans before taking hold of her white shirt. “So. Let’s come to an agreement. You don’t try to kill me, you let me stay here, and I’ll tell you a few things and make sure not to start a ruckus before I depart.”
Her voice came out hushed when she asked, “How did you do that?”
“Transmute your chainsaw?” She paused in buttoning the shirt to turn toward her and lift up one hand. The knitting needle from before appeared from thin air betwixt her fingers, and she twirled it idly. In the slowness of its motion, Kanaya could see the spiraling, twisting white-black pattern of the metal and the tiny skull at the wide end. “The Thorns are an alchemic catalyst. The metal became the tube, and the oil became the lipstick inside.” She waved her hand in dismissal and the needle vanished. The buttoning was resumed.
“Alchemy isn’t real.”
She raised a thin brow, frowning. “Given your eloquence, I assumed you to be somewhat erudite. Please don’t prove me mistaken by denying what you’ve just experienced.”
“Alchemy—alchemy is just a form of ridiculous fake magic—”
“I am not here to debate the existence of magic,” the woman said. “Alchemy is a very precise science, and it is one that I understand on every count there is.”
“And how do you explain that summoning trick you used?”
“Again, I am not here to debate the existence of magic.” She tucked the shirt neatly into her jeans and did up the fly. Her belt was retrieved in turn and buckled. “But my catalyst is bonded to me, and it comes to my hand when I need it to.”
“Do you expect me to believe that?”
“That depends. Do you expect me to try to explain any of this to a woman who steadfastly denies the blatantly obvious?”
She paused. She crossed her arms. “Very well. Explain yourself. If you are not a troll, what are you?”
“A human. A creature alien to this planet, Alternia.”
Kanaya looked at her with a raised brow.
“I am from Earth. I have no idea how far away it is from Alternia, nor do I know if it’s even in the same universe. For all we know, the result of our failed alchemy was actually our deaths and this is some kind of divine punishment for our unholy science.” She smirked. “As a scientist, though, I am disinclined to believe in any sort of god until I see the proof, and thus I understand that I am still alive.”
“Who, pray tell, are ‘we?’”
“The half siblings John Egbert and Jade Harley, myself, and my half brother Dave Strider.”
“And your name is?”
“Ah. My apologies. Rose Lalonde. Yours?”
“Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
A pause. She took a breath. “All right. You may allow yourself to be deluded enough to think I believe any of your claims. What is it that you’re here for?”
With a long sigh, Rose sat down in the chair. Sitting prim, she crossed her legs at the knees. “That depends on which one of us you ask. John and Jade would like to reverse our little alchemy mishap and return to Earth, as they’re very homesick after three of your sweeps. Dave is seeking a kind of justice.”
“What kind of justice?”
She hummed in thought. “I suppose the justice that a guilty party wants done to absolve himself. This is our fault, in the end.”
She smiled, and there was nothing good contained within it. “Ah. That’s connected to what I’m here for. Our alchemy backfired, as I’ve stated. We went a sweep living under the care of a couple of rather sympathetic trolls, we four and our guardians. And then we were shown that our tremendous fuck-up resulted in a delayed...creation that screwed us all the more.”
Kanaya stared, eyes narrow. “A creation?”
“Oh yes. I’m not sure if you could call him a homunculus or not, but he’s certainly something that our mistakes created. And, much like being exiled to this planet, we were dealt another punishment that seems beautifully karmic if you happen to believe in it.” She let out a hum that might have been amused if not for the cruel ugliness of her smile. “He found us, and he slaughtered our guardians. He killed my mother and left her body to rot under this blistering sun of yours.”
Rose continued to smile, and laced her fingers together when she put her hands on her knee. “Dave decided to name him Jack Noir. I am here to kill him.”